Barbara (2012)

Barbara (2012)

A precise and evocative historical thriller set in pre-1989 Germany, drowned in Hitchcockian suspense

The Very Best

8.3

Movie

France, Germany
German
Drama
2012
CHRISTIAN PETZOLD
Alicia von Rittberg, Christina Hecke, Christoph Krix
105 min

TLDR

Germany may be divided, but all my heart belongs to Nina Hoss.

What it's about

In 1980, Barbara (Nina Hoss) arrives at a coastal town in East Germany to work as a physician, hoping she can elope to Denmark with her West German boyfriend.

The take

Barbara (Petzold regular Nina Hoss) has fallen from grace, at least by the standards of 1980s Germany. A renowned doctor at a prestigious East Berlin hospital, she has been demoted to a paediatrician at a tiny town on the Baltic coast: a punishment for daring to try and leave the DDR. The Stasi spy on her, threaten her, and on occasion, abuse her. But Barbara does not give up in her attempts to establish a better life for herself, if only she could cross the sea and dock in Denmark. With such a politically-conscious premise, Christian Petzold's sixth film became a hit on the European scene and transformed his relatively modest career into something more transnational. Even if Barbara feels very local—the way in which Germany's divide conditions every movement and gesture of its characters—the tropes of a spy thriller come to the fore and make a legible, rewarding viewing out of something one may deem too particular. The film owes a lot to its lead, Hoss, who has become a staple of Petzold's career, with her stoicism and towering presence as Barbara – a symbol of obstructed mobility.

What stands out

As a director, Christian Petzold is not easy to pin down. He avoids all kinds of formal techniques and panache, making his films look almost innocuous. No fanfare, no tricks, at least none that stand out to the naked eye. That said, he has learned from the best and consciously references Alfred Hitchcock's careful build-up of suspense through introducing details and returning to them. In this case, a Rembrandt painting almost propels the narrative, just by being shown and discussed by the characters. An elegant use of foreshadowing devices and sharp framing that keeps you wondering what occupies the off-screen space contribute to an atmosphere of unease. A rather unusual period film, Barbara reads more like a thriller, even if the events depicted are not that thrilling in themselves. His directorial approach may look simple and minimalist, but nevertheless, Petzold won a Best Director award when the film premiered on his home turf, at the Berlinale in 2012, which then made Barbara his most famous film to date.

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